“Fat City” by Leonard Gardner is a timeless American classic that delves deep into the gritty and unforgiving world of professional boxing, painting a vivid and unflinching portrait of the dreams, aspirations, and harsh realities faced by its characters. Published in 1969, this novel has captivated readers for decades with its raw and unvarnished portrayal of life on the fringes of society.
Set in the sun-scorched, small-town landscape of Stockton, California, “Fat City” follows the intertwined lives of two boxers, Billy Tully and Ernie Munger. The novel’s title alludes to the real-world term used by boxers to describe the point in their careers when they have gained some weight and are no longer in peak fighting shape. Tully and Munger find themselves in this twilight of their careers, navigating a world that has given them a few too many punches.
Billy Tully, a washed-up and disillusioned boxer in his thirties, once had a promising career ahead of him, but life’s disappointments have worn him down. His failed marriage and bouts of alcoholism have led him to a dead-end job in a meatpacking plant. Yet, deep down, he still holds onto the dream of a triumphant return to the ring and a shot at redemption.
On the other side of the ring, we meet Ernie Munger, a young and talented boxer who is just starting to make his name in the sport. Eager and full of hope, Ernie represents the future that Tully once imagined for himself. Their paths cross when Tully begins to train Ernie, serving as a mentor of sorts, while Ernie, in turn, looks up to Tully as an example of what not to become.
Gardner’s prose is sharp, unadorned, and authentic, mirroring the harsh realities of the world he portrays. He brings the reader into the seedy gyms, dimly lit bars, and impoverished neighborhoods of Stockton, creating an atmosphere of gritty realism. The dialogues are crisp, often laced with gallows humor, and capture the essence of the characters’ lives with an unflinching honesty.
“Fat City” is not just a story about boxing; it’s a story about the human condition, about the unrelenting pursuit of dreams, and the inevitable disappointments that come with them. Gardner’s characters are flawed and complex, struggling to make sense of their lives and find meaning in a world that often seems stacked against them. The novel explores themes of ambition, ambition, and the passage of time, creating a poignant and reflective narrative.
In “Fat City,” Leonard Gardner offers a stark and unapologetic look at the world of boxing and the broader American experience. It’s a story of resilience, redemption, and the enduring human spirit. The novel’s characters may not always find success in the traditional sense, but they find something deeper—a sense of purpose and a glimmer of hope in a world that is anything but forgiving.
More than five decades since its initial publication, “Fat City” remains a powerful and evocative work, recognized for its unvarnished portrayal of life’s complexities and the dreams that persist even in the face of adversity. It’s a novel that continues to resonate with readers, reminding us that, in the world of “Fat City,” the fight is never truly over, and the pursuit of one’s dreams can be a battle worth fighting.
Leonard Gardner’s ‘Fat City’
Over the voluminous legs of his trousers he opened the newspaper. On a page with a photograph of basketball players, he stared at the columns of print until his name separated itself from inscrutable words. He drew from his pocket a small bone-handled knife, folded the paper along the edges of the article, slit each fold, threw all the remaining paper on the floor, and squinted at the excised article, his lips moving silently at each appearance of his name. Of Billy Tully he knew nothing and he cared to know nothing. He went where there was work, and who his opponents were no longer made any difference. He worried only about himself, his health, his conditioning, and his hands. Because he had broken his left on the top of a head, he had not fought in four months, and though he had carried the hand several weeks in a cast, it had pained him when he again had tried to hit with it in the gym. So he had rested it, and one day from a peddler outside a church he bought for two pesos a silver milagrito in the shape of a tiny hand. In the church he kissed the painted feet of the Virgin and the hem of her robe, laden with hundreds of silver hearts, legs, arms, horses, cows, pigs, and on a small exposed patch of the purple velvet had pinned his hand. The pain was gone the next time he went to the Baños Jordan and threw his fist against a heavy bag. He had resumed training and, in debt to his manager, had been quickly matched. On the train he had shadowboxed in the men’s room, and at stops along the way had got off and run up and down beside the standing cars. Often in the past he had fought with less training; he had fought without training at all, keeping in shape by fighting sometimes once and twice a week. Since his first bouts as a fourteen-year-old flyweight, he had many times gone into the ring after nights of bedless sleep, with half-healed cuts, broken nose, sore throat, fever, venereal infections, and had learned to have faith in his body. A few times he had been knocked down and had stayed down—not from fear but from the certainty of a severe beating—and that had seemed right too, because his body was his livelihood. Early he had learned how to last, and he had lasted now fifteen years.
Arcadio Lucero had begun with desperate fury and a relentless style evolved in disputes with other shoe-shine boys in the zocalo of Oaxaca where, after the death of his mother, he had slept on the benches under the trees. In winter, wrapped in a serape and wearing a knit cap, he had coughed and shivered with other boys and men through nights of semi-sleep, and though he missed his mother he did not miss an earlier comfort. Before her death he had slept huddled with his brother and sister on the sidewalk while she dozed and tended a charcoal brazier with one or two ears of corn keeping warm at the edge of the grate for any late passer-by. A Zapotec Indian, she had squatted through the days at the same spot, selling the corn she seasoned with slices of lime dipped in salt and powdered chili, while he and his brother loitered outside cafés and cantinas and in the dirt streets of the market, driving away dogs, begging, standing watch at parked cars, wagons, loaded mules and burros. Hard blackened ears of corn had been his breakfast until that cold morning when he awoke to a dead fire and saw his mother lying on her side, openmouthed. His sister, the youngest, had died earlier. His brother left town with a farmer, and Arcadio went to the park with a can of wax. Those first frantic bouts in Oaxaca and Tuxtla Gutiérrez he had fought with grim zeal. Training sometimes in a dirt-floored gym, fighting under rain drummed roofs with water dripping into the ring, he had moved northward, arriving at sixteen at the border at Juárez, where he stayed long enough to father a child. When he got to Mexico City he was grown, a seasoned and calculating puncher with the scars of a veteran on his broad Indian face. He weighed 126 pounds. Fighting in the capital, he could afford a suit and new pointed shoes with elevated heels. His thick hair he wore long, combed back over the tops of his ears. Set in one pierced earlobe was a tiny gold medallion. Soon his face was in the tabloids. Then the fans who crowded the floor of the gym closed about him. Young men lined the ropes when he sparred, pressed around him at the speed bag, a boy standing above him on the quaking platform as a steadying ballast against the force of his blows.
The Coliseo was designed like a small bull ring, circular, its tiers of balconies screened off with chicken wire to protect the boxers, referee and ringsiders from thrown bottles and weapons that might have escaped the searching hands of policemen who patted down from armpits to ankles each entering spectator. Often through the chicken wire and up from ringside at the end of his fights, a shower of coins sailed into the ring. Leaving the arena past the lame and blind still moaning and chanting outside the doors, Lucero was followed by a group of admirers. Sometimes as many as twenty, they accompanied him up the unlit street, ingratiating, shouting, waiting with him at each corner for the last of the group to catch up—a smiling young cripple who dragged himself along the pavement on a piece of rubber tire. And there in the dark among glowing fragrant cigarettes, watching the laborious approach of that low twisted figure with helplessly tossing legs, he felt moments of limitless destiny. He knocked out the national featherweight champion, and after one celebrated year was knocked out himself. He went on traveling, defeating hometown favorites all across Mexico, but the important fights he began to lose. Lucero now was wearing down. He had fought nearly two hundred times. What would become of him after he could not go on he had no idea, so did not think about it. All that was before him was tomorrow’s fight, and a week after another in Los Angeles, if he got by this one. A knockout loss would bring a thirty-day suspension.
Out on the street, Lucero found a drugstore with a Mexican clerk. While there he dialed the number given him in Mexico City by his manager, and to the voice that answered said: “Bueno? Gil Solis? Estoy aquí—Arcadio Lucero. Tengo un cuarto en el Hotel Lincoln.” With a tinfoil packet of large flat tablets, Lucero went up the street to El Tecolote. In the window was his picture on a poster. He bent over in the dim light and looked at Billy Tully—who was, he saw, not so young either—and at himself. He had gained ten pounds since the photo was taken. Even so, as he entered, it was evident that the bartender recognized him.
“Coca-Cola,” he said, mounting the stool. His last night in this city he had spent here drinking. The bar had been full until closing time, the jukebox blaring and strangers embracing him. He remembered being driven in a car crowded with men and women, and remembered firing his pistol out the window into the air. Lucero put a tablet in his mouth, took a swallow from the bottle and belched through the devious chambers of his nose. He settled into a kind of contentment. The bartender was moving down the bar. From the corner of his eye Lucero saw the faces of his countrymen turning to look at him, and he felt at home, as at home as he ever felt anywhere.
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